Friday, April 22, 2011

The Conspirator - Interesting Drama, Bad History

Robert Redford's The Conspirator isinteresting viewing for any student of the Civil War. Unfortunately, the movie, like most Hollywood portrayals of the Civil War, strays from the facts.


The story of the military trial of Mary Surratt reveals the radical Republicans at their post-war worse. Robin Wright is excellent as the wrongly accused Surratt, a Southern sympathizer, but not assassin. James McAvoy as Frederick Aiken plays the role of the reluctant defense lawyer who becomes Surratt's champion. Kevin Kline is a mean-spirited Secretary of War Edwin Stanton who oversees the Redford's kangaroo-court military tribunal. The movie provides a sober presentation of government and public attitudes in Washington after Lee's surrender.

The movie, produced by American Film Company, heightened my interest in learning more about the trial. Unfortunately, the more I read the more disappointed I became with the theatrical presentation. Liberties are certainly granted in storytelling, but the movie had some glaring differences with the historical record.

I discovered Trail of the Lincoln Assassination Conspirators on the Famous American Trials web site. The site has transcripts from the trial, newspaper accounts, and biographies of the conspirators.

I started to compile a list of discrepancies between the movie and the historical record, when I discovered that Carrie Suntken's The Civil War Project's "The Conspirator vs. Facts." The web page lists an amazing number of differences. I would also refer readers to the Wikipedia account of the trail of Mary Surratt for other information. As with all Wikipedia information, I encourage you to visit the suggested reading and other sites as well.

Some of the major differences are as follows:

• The movie has only one lawyer defending Surratt, while she actually had three --- Reverdy Johnson, Frederick Aiken, and John Clampitt

• The movie has Frederick Aiken meeting with Anna Surratt at the boardinghouse, but, according to Suntken's research, Anna never returned to the house after her release and stayed with friends.

• The movie portrays Mary Surratt's daughter, Anna, as having a minor role in the events and not being allowed to visit her mother. Anna visited her mother on many occasions; she also spent a lot of time talking with Powell, as she was trying to convince him to help persuade the court that her mother was innocent. Anna Surratt pleaded repeatedly for her mother's life with Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt, but he refused to consider clemency. She also attempted to see President Andrew Johnson several times to beg for mercy, but was not granted permission to see him.

• In the movie, the case against Mary Surratt is presented as very weak based on the testimony of two witnesses. In the actual trial, the prosecution presented a total of nine witnesses to build its case. Several witnesses corroborated Weichmann's and Lloyd's testimonies.

• Only two witnesses were called for the defense in the movie version. However, the record indicates that 31 people testified in the trial. Many witnesses were called at the end of the defense's case to testify to Mary Surratt's loyalty to the Union, her deep Christian faith, and her kindness. A number of Catholic priests were called to the stand to testify about Surratt's faith, good character, and incorruptibility. Portraying Surratt as a good Christian woman incapable of committing the crimes for which she was accused.

One issue that was not touched on during the movie was the widespread anti-Catholicism present in the United States in the mid nineteenth century. Protestant leaders became alarmed by the heavy influx of Catholic immigrants from Ireland and Germany. In the 1830s and 1840s, prominent Protestant leaders, such as Lyman Beecher and Horace Bushnell, attacked the Catholic Church as an enemy of republican values. Some scholars view the anti-Catholic rhetoric of Beecher and Bushnell as having contributed to anti-Irish and anti-Catholic mob violence.

Beecher's Plea for the West (1835) urged Protestants to exclude Catholics from western settlements. The Catholic Church's official silence on the subject of slavery also garnered the enmity of northern Protestants. Intolerance became more than an attitude on August 11, 1834, when a mob set fire to an Ursuline convent in Charlestown, MA.

The resulting "nativist" movement, which achieved prominence in the 1840s, was whipped into a frenzy of anti-Catholicism that led to mob violence, the burning of Catholic property, and the killing of Catholics. This violence was fed by claims that Catholics were destroying the culture of the United States. Irish Catholic immigrants were blamed for spreading violence and drunkenness.

These sentiments certainly created an atmosphere of prejudice toward Mary Surratt and probably contributed to her conviction and punishment.

Doug Linder, on the Trail of the Lincoln Assassination Conspirators web site, concludes:

"Over the years, critics have attacked the verdicts, sentences, and procedures of the 1865 Military Commission. These critics have called the sentences unduly harsh, and criticized the rule allowing the death penalty to be imposed with a two-thirds vote of Commission members. The hanging of Mary Surratt, the first woman ever executed by the United States, has been a particular focus of criticism. Critics also have complained about the standard of proof, the lack of opportunity for defense counsel to adequately prepare for the trial, the withholding of potentially exculpatory evidence, and the Commission's rule forbidding the prisoners from testifying on their own behalf. The critics have a point: The 1865 trial of the Lincoln conspirators did fall short of commonly accepted norms of procedure and the verdicts--by modern standards--seem harsh.

"There does seem little question, however, that four of the convicted conspirators participated--in ways either large or small--in Booth's plan to assassinate key federal officials. Lewis Powell clearly attempted to stab to death Secretary Seward. David Herold, Dr. Samuel Mudd, and Edman Spangler aided Booth's escape from Washington. Herold and Mudd provided aid to Booth with full knowledge of his crime--and Spangler most likely did as well."

So, how do we view Redford's movie? It is a thought-provoking piece about the politically charged atmosphere in Washington after the Lincoln assassination. The movie provides a preview of how the radical Republicans would treat the defeated Confederate states. In spite of its liberties with the historical record, it shows how vindictive the government was relative to the South, and, perhaps more importantly, how no one in government wanted to be considered as favoring or sympathizing with the enemy. The Conspirator contains some fine acting and is a worthy fictional, historical, courtroom drama.

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